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AZ: New conflicts arise in Mexican wolf debate

By Kevin Pirehpour Special to the Green Valley News

Everyone agrees, wolves bring conflict.

Ever since the Mexican gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1976 and the subspecies was reintroduced to the American West in 1998, conflicts amongst a variety of wolf stakeholders have persisted to this day.

Along the Arizona-New Mexico border conflict between wolf advocates and ranchers on the Arizona side of the border has overshadowed the Mexican wolf reintroduction program.

Now a new conflict is brewing, this time between Arizona wildlife managers, who tout their success at increasing the wolf population, and activists who say the Mexican wolves are lacking in genetic diversity.

The activists say it’s time to introduce entire wolf families from captivity into the wild in a “science-based” program to reduce inbreeding and increase genetic diversity, something state officials and ranchers oppose.

The lineage

All Mexican gray wolves in Arizona are the descendants of seven wolves from three distinct lineages who were caught and put in a captive breeding program from 1961 to 1980 to save the species from extinction.

A recent count shows that the Mexican wolf population increased by 24% in 2019. Raising the number of wolves in the wild to a minimum of 163 — 76 in Arizona and 87 in New Mexico — from 131 in 2018.

The survey shows the Mexican wolf recovery program – which costs about $3 million annually funded by federal and state sources — is helping to save the rarest subspecies of gray wolves in North America, said Jim deVos, assistant director for wildlife management at the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

However, the population increase does not indicate growth in genetic diversity, according to Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Genetic diversity among the Mexican wolves is still declining,” Robinson said. “Generation by generation, each wolf is on average more closely related to every other wolf than their parents’ generation had been.”

“My worry is that at some point the wolves become so inbred that feeding or other management techniques are not enough to keep the population alive,” Robinson said.

Diversify the pack

Rather than releasing captive adult wolves and pups into the wild, wildlife managers use a technique called cross-fostering — a delicate process where captive wolf pups are placed into wild dens to be raised by surrogate wild wolf parents — to boost the genetic diversity of the endangered species.

In January, wildlife managers began tracking wild wolves for denning behavior. Wolves that stop roaming are likely beginning to den, prompting officials to attempt to match the gestation period of wild wolves with their captive counterparts. Pups born within a few days of each other have the highest rate of survival once mixed into the den, according to wildlife managers.

This year, 20 captive pups from facilities across the nation — including two pups from the Phoenix Zoo — were placed in wild dens along the mountainous region along Arizona – New Mexico border. Marking the most pups cross-fostered in a single breeding season since state officials first attempted the technique in 2014. Surpassing last year’s fostering class, which included the transfer of 12 pups to the wild.

“Dealing with COVID and dealing with the uncertainty of wolf fostering made it a particularly challenging year,” deVos said. “But we got 20 in dens and that’s eight more than the year before.”

Cross-fostering has allowed wildlife managers to reach the same genetic milestones — with less controversy among livestock owners — as establishing entire, previously captive wolf families in the wild, according to John Oakleaf, the Mexican wolf field projects coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It doesn’t matter where those animals come from or how they are released, it matters what the results are.” Oakleaf said. “And with cross-fostering, we’ve seen some pretty good results.”

New approach

In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lost a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity in the U.S. District Court of Tucson for failing to use the best available science to manage Mexican wolves. They are now under court mandate to revise their wolf management rule by May 2021.

The service is holding a public comment period through June 15 for those interested in weighing in on how they should revise the Mexican wolf management rule. Interested parties can submit their comments at this link.

Last year, Robinson and dozens of other environmental groups and scientists wrote to federal wildlife managers and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, asking them to adopt “an entirely new approach” and to include the release of entire wolf families to boost the wild population and gene diversity. They also called for the Mexican wolf population classification be changed from experimental-non-essential to experimental-essential.

“Please do not keep going in the same fruitless direction that has not even met your own metrics, but instead chart a new path that will actually recover the Mexican gray wolf,” the letter said.

Another letter addressed to Brady McGhee, Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for a return to the practice of releasing family packs.

“The reintroduced Mexican wolf population in the U.S. was established, beginning in 1998, through the releases of captive-born, well-bonded, adult male/female pairs with pups – i.e. family packs,” the letter said. “The last release of a well-bonded wolf pair with pups occurred in 2006. There have been no such releases in the ensuing 13 years.”

“We’re not saying never do cross-fostering, but we’re seeing that cross-fostering is not sufficient to rescue the population from its genetic woes,” Robinson said.

State and federal wildlife managers agree that genetic diversity is an issue in the wild population but disagree that family packs need to be introduced to the wild.

For now, deVos and other wildlife managers are sticking to cross-fostering to manage genetics and to grow the wild population, adding wolves raised in captivity and released in the wild as adults get into more “trouble” preying on animals closer to human operations.

“We’ve had adult releases, it doesn’t work as effectively from a survival stand-point,” deVos said. “We’ve introduced nine adults into the wild, eight of them were removed or shot because of human encounters and depredations.”

Age-old conflict 

Today, humans continue to be one of the “greatest threats” to the Mexican wolf population, Oakleaf said.

Wildlife field teams work to track, move and scare wolves away from ranching communities to protect livestock and wolves. A wolf pack on average is made up of five wolves and needs nearly 200 square miles of territory, according to Oakleaf.

Despite these efforts, some ranchers are seeing an increase in livestock depredations in line with growing wolf population. In 2018 and 2019, there was a spike in wolf depredations, according to the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team.

“We recognize that wolf depredations on livestock can cause a significant burden on livestock producers,” Paul Greer, Interagency Field Team Leader for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said.

“Every year, we’re getting more and more wolf kills,” Arizona Livestock Loss Board Member Stephen Clark said. “It’s like every two months we’re getting 10, 12, 15 cattle, and that’s probably the tip of the iceberg.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has authorized the killing of nearly 20 Mexican wolves since their reintroduction in 1998, according to a recent Center for Biological Diversity press release. Including four that federal employees killed in late March following a series of livestock depredations.

“Punishing wolves for eating the slowest, easiest to get prey in their habitat is just senseless brutality against this key native species,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project in a 2019 press release. “It’s insane that we allow ranchers to run their herds in wolf habitat without requiring any proactive measures of protection and then kill the wolves for taking advantage of human carelessness.”

Robinson and other advocates have requested that grazing permits be revoked from ranchers found guilty of illegally killing wolves as a way to combat human interference with recovery efforts.

“If we can fix the genetic problems that have been created, and if we can stop the government from shooting and trapping wolves, and greatly curb the illegal killing of wolves, the Mexican wolf would have a very good shot at survival and recovery,” Robinson said.